Music & Entertainment

What Is the Pentatonic Scale? Learn Music Theory

Written by MasterClass

Apr 12, 2019 • 5 min read

If you listen to popular music, you’ve heard the pentatonic scale. It’s most closely associated with blues music, but also manifests in all the genres that spanned from the blues — rock n’ roll, R&B, pop, country, bluegrass, hip hop, heavy metal, folk, reggae, and even jazz.

The best players in these genres don’t exclusively rely on the pentatonic scale, and some of them (most notably jazz) only use it sparingly. But it’s impossible to imagine Western popular music without pentatonics. It’s as integral as guitars and drums.

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What Is the Pentatonic Scale?

The word pentatonic means “five tones.” Therefore, a pentatonic scale is a five-note musical scale. Technically speaking, any scale with only 5 notes can be called pentatonic. And worldwide, there are many forms of pentatonic scales — from West Africa to Eastern China.

However the popular genres of Western music are based around two specific pentatonic scales:

  • Major pentatonic scale
  • Minor pentatonic scale.

What Are the Notes of the Major Pentatonic Scale?

The major pentatonic scale is a variation on a plain old major scale. A major scale has seven notes (which makes it “hepatonic”). We call each of these notes a scale degree. In the major scale, the scale degrees are very simple:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7

To put this in real world terms, consider the notes of a D major scale:

D - E - F# - G - A - B - C

This means that D is the first scale degree (also called the root), E is the second scale degree, F# is the third scale degree, and so on.

In a major pentatonic scale, eliminate the 4th and 7th scale degrees. This leaves:

1 - 2 - 3 - 5 - 6

And therefore a D major pentatonic scale includes the following notes:

D - E - F# - A - B

What Are the Notes of the Minor Pentatonic Scale?

The minor pentatonic scale is a variation on the natural minor scale. Just like the major scale, the natural minor scale has seven scale degrees. They are:

1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b6 - b7

To put this in practical terms, consider a G natural minor scale. Its notes are:

G - A - Bb - C - D - Eb - F

This means G is the root, Bb is the flat third, D is the fifth, F is the flat 7th, and so on.

To turn a natural minor scale into a minor pentatonic scale, eliminate the 2nd and 6th scale degrees. This leaves:

1 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b7

And as such, the Gm pentatonic scale contains the following notes:

G - Bb - C - D - F

How to Play the Pentatonic Scale

If you can play major and natural minor scales, then you can also play major and minor pentatonic scales. Just remember:

  • A major pentatonic scale is a major scale minus the 4th and 7th scale degrees.
  • A minor pentatonic scale is a natural minor scale minus the 2nd and 6th degrees.

Here are some popular pentatonic scales:

C major pentatonic scale: C - D - E - G - A
F major pentatonic scale: F - G - A - C - D
A minor pentatonic scale: A - C - D - E - G
E minor pentatonic scale: E - G - A - B - D

While the pentatonic scale notes can be played in order, try leaping between notes, repeating the same note more than once, and adding non-scale notes to write memorable melodies, riffs, and solos.

What Non-Scale Notes Can You Add To Pentatonic Scales?

To make your music interesting, you sometimes end up adding in some notes that aren’t in an official scale. This is especially true of the pentatonic scale. Limiting yourself to only five notes is a guaranteed way to bore your listener and stifle creativity. So try doing this instead:

  • In a major pentatonic scale, try adding in the 2nd scale degree (which is part of the major scale to begin with). This can create a very pretty effect. And for something a little more gritty and bluesy, try adding in a flat 3rd. Going from the flat third to the natural 5th (which is in the major pentatonic scale) is a trick blues soloists use all the time.
  • In the minor pentatonic scale, try adding a flat 5th. Going from the flat 5th to the natural 5th is another trick that’s guaranteed to add a ton of blues flavor to your playing. Also try adding a natural 6th. This will produce the sound of the dorian mode, which is popular in all sorts of genres, from jazz to funk to heavy metal.

What Is the Pentatonic Scale Used For In Music?

Major and minor pentatonic scales are everywhere in Western popular music. Here’s where you’re likely to hear them:

  • In country, a major pentatonic scale is perfect for leads on the guitar, banjo, lap steel, fiddle, or mandolin.
  • In blues, minor pentatonic scales (with an added flat 5th) are the basis of both soulful vocal melodies and plaintive guitar solos.
  • In heavy metal, minor pentatonic scales are the jumping off point for most shredding lead guitarists.
  • In pop and R&B, pentatonic scales typically comprise the notes of chart-topping melodies.

In fact pentatonic scales are so popular, that they’ll work in nearly any mainstream genre. However, the pentatonic scale does not appear in certain styles, such as jazz music that isn’t based on the blues, or most styles of classical music and opera. These styles rely on other scales and modes as the foundation for their harmonies and melodies.

Examples of the Pentatonic Scale in Popular Music

There are endless examples of songs based on the major or minor pentatonic scale. To name just a tiny fraction:

  • John Newton, “Amazing Grace” (1779)
  • Rednex, “Cotton Eyed Joe” (1995)
  • The Temptations, “My Girl” (1965)
  • Cream, “Sunshine Of Your Love” (1967)
  • Pink Floyd, “Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2” (1979)
  • Robert Burns, “Auld Lang Syne” (1788)

Learn how to apply the pentatonic scale to your guitar playing with Tom Morello.